EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Vikings used some fresh blood and a familiar face to jump-start the rushing attack in 2017.
Minnesota ranked 32nd in the NFL in rushing in 2016, but addressed the position last offseason by signing free agent Latavius Murray and selecting Dalvin Cook in the second round. The pair joined with Jerick McKinnon, who was in his fourth season in Purple.
The trio helped revitalize Minnesota’s rushing attack as the Vikings finished seventh overall with 1,957 yards.
But the season wasn’t without ups and downs, as Cook’s promising rookie campaign was lost in Week 4 with a torn ACL. The former Florida State standout had 354 rushing yards in three-plus games before his injury.
Murray and McKinnon knew the rest was up to them.
“We didn’t have a conversation, but we kind of looked at each other and knew it would be up to us,” Murray said of the mood after Cook’s injury. “People were going to look at that position, and if we didn’t deliver, they were going to say, ‘Oh, this is the reason why (the team struggled).’
“We didn’t want to be that reason, and we wanted to do what we were able to do,” Murray added.
Added McKinnon: “It was devastating. The start that Dalvin got off to, he was on pace to do some great things and potentially be Offensive Rookie of the Year, if not Rookie of the Year. He’s that type of player. When he went down, me and ‘Tay’ knew we had to hold it down for him now and keep things going.”
The duo certainly did their part. The Vikings rushed for 100 or more yards in 11 of the season’s final 12 games as Minnesota went 11-1 the rest of the way.
Murray finished with a team-high 842 rushing yards with eight touchdowns, and McKinnon had 570 yards and a career-high three scores on the ground.
Murray said he was most proud of overcoming a slow start to contribute to his new team.
“I didn’t have the great start that I wanted,” said Murray, whose moniker is the ‘Tay Train.’ “Regardless of being the starter or not being the starter, the reps I was getting weren’t as effective or productive as I wanted them to be. You can sit here and talk about the injury I had … for me, as long as I’m out on that field, I want to be productive.
“As the season went on, I was able to get stronger and get better as a player,” Murray added. “That’s satisfying to me as long as I’m able to improve and contribute to the offense.”
McKinnon, meanwhile, showed his versatility by finishing second on the team in rushing while adding 51 receptions for 421 yards and two touchdown catches.
The former third-round pick, known as ‘Jet,’ impressed many in the organization, including first-year running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu.
“He can do everything,” Polamalu said of McKinnon. “He can run it inside, he can run it outside, he can catch, he can protect. I’ve been really impressed he’s been available in all the games, and that’s a credit to him and how he’s taken care of himself and become a pro in all areas.”
First-year fullback C.J. Ham helped lead the way with his blocking, and also added his first career touchdown run on a 1-yard plunge against Pittsburgh.
As the Vikings look to the 2018 season, Minnesota will hope for similar success with the ground game going forward.
And Cook, who has been rehabbing for the past four months and recently started jogging, said he has his sights set on a full recovery.
“I’ve got to get back healthy and get back on the field and be reliable on the field,” Cook said after the Vikings season ended. “That’s just staying healthy, and that’s the No. 1 goal for this offseason, to get healthy and stay healthy for the rest of the season.
“I could say I could have helped a lot, but that’s why you have to be healthy,” Cook later added. “That’s the No. 1 key this offseason and to get bigger, faster and stronger.”
*752 — *The Vikings rushed for 752 more yards in 2017 than they did in 2016. Minnesota went from dead last in rushing to seventh overall this past season.
Perhaps the most dominating sequence of the season came in Week 12 at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.
With Minnesota holding a 20-10 halftime lead, the Vikings got the ball to start the second half. Murray ripped off a 46-yard run on the first play of the drive before McKinnon added 27 yards on the next two carries.
Murray then cemented the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run as the Vikings put together a menacing 75-yard scoring drive — all on running plays.
That sequence helped Vikings get a 30-23 win as Minnesota essentially put the NFC North on ice.
*Regular Season Statistics *
842 yards on 216 rushing attempts (3.9 yards per carry) with eight touchdowns and a long of 46 yards; 15 receptions for 103 yards with a long of 28
570 yards on 150 rushing attempts (3.8 yards per carry) with three touchdowns and a long of 58 yards; 51 receptions for 421 yards with a long of 41 and two scores
354 yards on 74 rushing attempts (4.8 yards per carry) with two touchdowns and a long of 33 yards; 11 receptions for 90 yards with a long of 36
13 yards on seven rushing attempts (1.9 yards per carry) with a touchdown and a long of three yards; seven receptions for 68 yards
“The way they responded was awesome, and it was what the team needed. I went down, and it was unfortunate, but the way they picked the running game up, it was good. I had 100-percent confidence they were going to do it. I’d been with those guys every day, and I knew what they were capable of. When I had my surgery, those guys called me every day to motivate me and to make sure I was doing what I needed to be doing back in Pensacola. That’s just the relationship we built in that room.” — Cook on the closeness and cohesiveness of the running back room